Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Message To Those In Glass Houses

During the mid 90s the ABC started repeating old ‘Countdown’ episodes on the late night music television program ‘Rage’. It was during one of those late night nostalgia sessions that I was reminded of a song that had all but slipped by mind since the time it had first been a hit. On an early 1979 episode of Countdown, Melbourne band The Sports performed their new single ‘Don’t Throw Stones’. It immediately hit me between the eyes as a song I recalled hearing from that era. I’d been thinking for some time about trying to track down a ‘best of’ CD for The Sports, but hearing ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ again (which is very Elvis Costello like), prompted me to attend to that task post haste. I found a collection of The Sports best material titled ‘All Sports’ (originally released on vinyl in 1982) at the now defunct Glenn A. Baker’s Time Warp store in the Sydney CBD. I was happy to have snagged a copy of ‘Don’t Throw Stones’, but more over have the chance to delve into some of the best pop-rock music produced on the Australian scene during the late 70s/early 80s. Time now to take a closer look at the wide world of The Sports.

The Sports arose on the Melbourne music field out of the ashes of popular rockabilly outfit The Pelaco Brothers during 1976. The Pelaco Brothers had been a fan favourite on the Carlton live scene, and also boasted one Joe Camilleri (see earlier Jo Jo Zep post) in their ranks. The original ‘team’ line-up comprised ex-Pelaco Brothers Stephen Cummings (vocals) and Ed Bates (guitar), with Jim Niven (keyboards/piano, ex-Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band), Robert Glover (bass, ex-Myriad), and Paul Hitchins (drums). All the members had a strong connection with the roots-music scene, and before long gelled to make The Sports one of the sharpest R&B, soul, rockabilly units on the thriving Melbourne inner-city pub scene. From the get go they played a pulsating set of revved up covers and original material, and Cummings (who had previously been an aspiring stand up comedian) melded each song to his voice. If you attended one of their earlier gigs, chances are you would have been treated to high energy renditions of ‘Route 66’ or ‘Chain Of Fools’, or early Cummings-Bates compositions like ‘Put The Light On’ and ‘Cruisin’ In A Citroen’ (cool title), as part of an eclectic blend of material.

In early ‘77 The Sports issued a debut four track EP ‘Fair Game’ (pressing 500 copies) via the independent Zak label, produced by Joe Camilleri. It featured ‘Twist Senorita’ and earned a rave review from the high profile New Musical Express in the U.K., which drew comparisons between The Sports and early Rolling Stones. The July ‘77 review stated that “Steve Cummings out-Jaggers Jagger” - high praise indeed. It’s worth noting that a young singer called James Reyne (see previous post) would soon be fronting another popular local rock act called Australian Crawl, and it’s evident that Reyne took his queue from Cummings in terms of vocal style. ‘Twist Senorita’ had been penned by Ross Wilson (Daddy Cool/Mondo Rock) and was one of three tracks The Sports contributed to the various artists compilation ‘Debutantes’, released on Wilson’s own Oz label in mid ‘77 (this featured a selection of up and coming Melbourne artists). Soon after The Sports added a second guitarist to the roster when they recruited ex-Myriads (R&B/country combo) player Andrew Pendlebury in August ‘77. Pendlebury had also been a budding young artist, and had held a number of successful exhibitions of his paintings, which apparently boasted impressionistic style landscapes. Before the end of the year The Sports had been signed to the prestigious Mushroom Records label and began work on their debut full length album.

The lead out single was the catchy Cummings/Bates number ‘Boys! (What Did The Detective Say?)’, which reached a modest #55 on the Australian charts following its April ‘78 debut. The album ‘Reckless’ (also produced by Camilleri) hit the stores in May ‘78 and soon after hit the Australian charts, eventually peaking at #43. Like The Sports’ live gigs, the album featured a mix of covers and originals. The second single was a cover of the classic ‘When You Walk In The Room’ (1964 hit for both Jackie DeShannon and The Searchers). The Sports’ version fell just short of the national top 40 (#42), but further consolidated the band’s profile nationally. ‘Reckless’ was well received by critics but it apparently fell short of capturing the fervent atmosphere of the band’s high energy live shows.

In mid ‘78 original guitarist Ed Bates was shown the door, and his replacement was ex-Bleeding Hearts member Martin Armiger (who also added to the vocal mix). Cummings viewed the band as having substantially more commercial potential, and Armiger was viewed as a key component in honing The Sports’ sound to a more radio friendly profile. In September they scored a prize gig when they supported Graham Parker and the Rumour (see June post) on an Australian tour. Parker was suitably impressed and helped arrange for The Sports to travel to the U.K. in early ‘79 to support him there.

In the interim The Sports laid down the tracks for their second album, this time with Pete Solley (ex-Fox - see future post) at the production helm. The lead out single was the Cummings/Pendlebury song ‘Who Listens To The Radio’. It was an instant classic and encouraged plenty of people to listen to their radios when it was added to station play lists. ‘Who Listens To The Radio’ hit the Australian charts in November ‘78 and soon tuned in to #35 nationally. Just prior to departing for their U.K. tour, The Sports made that appearance on Countdown to showcase the second single, and title track, from their new album ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ (OZ#26). Yet another Cummings/Pendlebury composition, the song is very indicative of the late 70s new wave/London rock sound, and it’s surprising both it and The Sports didn’t make more of an impact in Britain. The Sports signed with the influential Stiff Records label in the U.K. (label stable to Elvis Costello and Ian Dury), who in early ‘79 released a four track EP titled ‘So Obvious’, featuring ‘Who Listens To The Radio’. Whilst in the U.K. The Sports recorded the four track EP ‘O.K., U.K!’ which included a frenzied take on the 1965 Easybeats’ masterpiece ‘Wedding Ring’. Meanwhile, the album ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ climbed relentlessly up the Australian charts to eventually peak at #9. The album was repackaged (with a different cover and track listing) for a U.S. release in mid ‘79 (on Arista). 1979 was proving a hectic year for The Sports, as they made the transition from local pub-rock band to potential high profile international act.

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